#SJblog #105

SCOTT DIXON AND FELIX ROSENQVIST AT LAGUNA SECA, MCLAREN JOINS INDYCAR AND F1 RECAP

#SJblog 104

JT – Indy Car’s season finale at Laguna Seca – the series’ first trip to the circuit since 2004 – was an interesting, tension filled race. Josef Newgarden ran a conservative pace, finishing 8th but close enough to championship rivals Scott Dixon (3rd), Alexander Rossi (6th) and teammate Simon Pagenaud (4th) to secure the title. 

Scott had a good race but had to battle for his podium finish, fighting with winner Colton Herta, 2nd place finisher Will Power and Pagenaud from the drop of the green flag to the checkers. Felix Rosenqvist had a terrific race, finishing 5th after starting 14th. Rosenqvist claimed the Rookie of the Year title and 6th in the championship standings. Scott finished 4th in the championship.  

What did you think of the race and the season for Scott and Felix?

SJ – There was a great energy and a lot of action in the paddock all weekend with lots fans coming to see the cars and teams. Overall the event was great and the racing was pretty good – better than expected as Laguna Seca is notorious for being a very difficult place to overtake. Due to the flowing nature of the corners and no real straights it’s never been an easy place to pass.  With that in mind I thought Felix did a great job, he pretty much passed every car he got by on-track. It wasn’t strategy calls that got him to 5th place. 

Had he not made the small mistake in the first round of qualifying and then receiving a very strange penalty, and instead started where he could have – I’m sure he could have been on the front row because he was super quick all weekend – in which case he would have been in with a shot to get his first win. But the little things make a big difference in Indy Car, everyone has to execute perfectly to get a good result, drivers, pit crew and the guys on the scoring stand. If any one of them messes up it’s very hard to recover because the racing is always so close. In my opinion, Indycar is by far the most difficult series in the world to get consistently good results. This is why you rarely see anyone win more than 3 or maybe 4 races in one season, it’s nearly impossible to get a consistent edge on the rest of the competition.

Scott did a superb job in qualifying getting on the front row, he wasn’t that happy with the car all weekend up to that point, but he seems to always find that little bit more when it really matters. He fought hard first with Herta and then both Power and Pagenaud, it was a great battle throughout the race, with really close racing but no blocking or touching from either of them. It’s great to see when three really good and professional drivers are racing hard, and they showed how it can be done without contact or penalties, great stuff. Overall it was a pretty good season for Scott and Felix but it wasn’t great for either of them, it could have definitely been a lot better. At Indy, Felix had his accident and then in the race, neither he nor Scott had a good day with both of them getting caught up in the Rahal/Bourdais accident (Scott finished 17th, Felix 28th) and that hurts at Indy because it’s a double-points race. Anyone that scores well at Indy carries that points advantage the whole year. If you don’t score well, or at all at Indy, that really puts you on the back foot for the rest of the season. 

Scott had kind of an unlucky year with two mechanical failures in a row right at the tail end of the season (at St. Louis and Portland). Again, that meant no points at all and when you don’t score in Indy Car it really hurts you. If you keep scoring at every race you pick up decent points and you stay in contention.

And all of the teams in Indy Car are catching up to the top teams. Scott agrees that the competition is tougher now than it’s ever been. When you have a car design where it’s relatively difficult to make any big gains, it’s difficult to gain an edge. Any small gain one team or another has soon gets caught up to by the other teams. But that’s one of the great things with Indy Car. It’s incredibly hard to win consistently because there are so many good cars and drivers. 

JT – It’s now official that McLaren will be a full time team in Indy Car next season with the merger of McLaren and Arrow Schmidt Peterson for 2020. 

SJ – I think it’s great news for the series, to have a team of that caliber and history to enter Indycar is good sign in every aspect. If they could get one or two more and some big name drivers they will be right back where they were in the early 90’s when Mansell came over. Big sponsors and a lot of manufacturers pouring big money into the series. I think it’s a smart move for them to join forces with SPM as they are already a well established team with a good engineering group, if they can add more resources and some of their F1 engineering expertise they will be a real threat to rest of the top teams.

JT – There were 24 cars on the grid at Laguna Seca and as you’ve said there’s a possibility there could be even more at many races on the 2020 Indy Car schedule. That’s a possibility Formula 1 does not have. FIA chief Jean Todt recently said he does not expect any new manufacturers to enter F1 in 2021 and he has not seen “solid” contenders to become new teams in F1 in 2021. “At the moment we are happy in having ten teams,” Todt says. “Time will tell if things will change in the future, knowing that the good figure is between 10 and 12 teams.”

Those aren’t encouraging statements. F1 not only needs an overhaul of its technical formula, it needs to cut the cost of participating sharply. Shouldn’t the series be looking to attract new blood? New competitors?

SJ – Not necessarily, I think if you have 22 really strong cars you don’t need more. On the other hand, yes, the barrier of entry has become almost impossible now to start a team from scratch. You either buy one that’s on the brink of going out of business, like Racing Point did with Force India, or you have to spend an insane amount to launch a new entry. It’s no surprise that manufacturers or teams aren’t lining up to give F1 a shot. 

It’s clear that the teams are no closer to agreeing on anything regarding the new rules package so the chances of seeing any new teams before that get’s sorted out are virtually nil. 

Some teams are worried about losing the “technical freedom” of Formula 1 and then there are others who are in favor of more standard parts, but no one seems sure how to formulate that and what parts should be standardized or not. As far as the argument about technical freedom, there really is no technical freedom, the rules are so strict that every team essentially is making the same thing, at an enormous cost of course. Every now and then, one of the top teams, who can afford to spend the money on R&D will discover some version or angle within those rules that gives them an edge for a while until everybody catches up again. But conceptually, there is zero room for innovation, everyone is using the exact same engine layout and they are all powered by the same energy source. The cars all look the same except for minor aero widgets that are different at every race, but again there is no room for innovation, just fine tuning the same concept. As I’ve said repeatedly, the only difference is that in F1 the teams have to make everything themselves rather than buying it from a supplier. But you end up with components that are only slightly different from one another between teams. One of the arguments I keep hearing is that if they all use the same components from one manufacturer, and there is a failure, then all the cars will fail. It’s strange in that case that they manage to make that work in pretty much every other championship without any real problems.

JT – The most recent F1 round was Russian Grand Prix, a race which Ferrari seemed to have in its control. Sebastian Vettel leapt ahead of teammate Charles Leclerc and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton at the start and lead until his first pit stop. Leclerc, having pitted earlier and setting fast laps, looked set to undercut Vettel and take the lead. But on his first lap out of the pits the hybrid energy recovery system in Vettel’s Ferrari failed, causing him to stop on-track and trigger a Virtual Safety Car. Hamilton and teammate Valterri Bottas who had been unable to challenge the Ferraris had not pitted yet. The VSC effectively gave the two free pit stops and they both leap-frogged Leclerc. The order remained unchanged to the finish with Mercedes scoring an unlikely 1-2 (Hamilton/Bottas) and Leclerc relegated to 3rd. 

There was also controversy after the start when Vettel – with the aid of the slipstream he gained from Leclerc – continued to increase the gap over his teammate without handing the lead back to Leclerc as had supposedly been agreed before the race. The controversy dominated TV coverage of the first half of the race. Among the top four cars - the Ferraris and Mercedes -  there were no passes for position on-track throughout the race. Changes of position only occurred via the pit stops. What did you think of the Russian GP?

SJ – Well, it was certainly a perfect example of how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I can relate to what happened before the race. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat in meetings before races where the engineers and also some drivers are trying to plan out the start and the first lap. Every single time that I can recall, by the time you let the clutch out at the start, whatever plan was in place went out the window. 

There are so many variables that you just cannot predict what will actually happen. To try to make a plan like Ferrari did with the slipstream for Vettel and then what would come next with Leclerc, it’s doomed to fail. Then there are all the permutations of what was agreed and what wasn’t agreed. But what was Vettel supposed to do? He got a blinding start and got a great run by everyone. Was he supposed to back off immediately? 

And so Ferrari’s race went completely pear shaped from then on. It looked early on like Leclerc had the race pace. I would have thought he could’ve gotten into DRS range with Vettel. And you would have thought he could draw into DRS range of Hamilton or Bottas later on. But it looked like he just didn’t have the pace when he needed it this time. Vettel looked like he really had the bit between his teeth and was back to being the guy we’re used to seeing so it was a shame he didn’t have the car to take it to the end. 

It looked like whoever was following the lead car had a really hard time staying close in turbulence. I think it’s partly just the nature of that track. 

JT - Watching the situation between Vettel and Leclerc unfold and hearing the TV commentators wheeze on at length about whether Vettel would or should give the lead to Leclerc quickly became annoying for me as a spectator. Yes, F1 is a manufacturer’s championship and there are intra-team dynamics because of that. 

But as a fan, those team or manufacturer dynamics make zero difference to me. I do not watch racing to see competition decided by agreements made before or during a race. That’s not what racing is supposed to be about for spectators and team orders have never been popular with fans. Yet they still persist in F1 and it makes the series look extremely weak. Shouldn’t this be embarrassing for what is supposed to be the world’s top category of racing? 

SJ – I think it’s part of the show. Since they added the radio communications to the TV feed we get to hear all this, but it’s always been the same more or less.  What confuses me with F1 is, wasn’t there a rule several years ago that no team orders were allowed? Did that just fade away or did they actually change it? I can’t recall if, why and when they took that rule out. In a way I think it’s a good thing they did, it’s better to be transparent about it and make it a part of the show, because the teams will always find a way to make it work either way. Remember Multi 21 with Red Bull a few years back?

The other one that confuses me is that there always used to be the rule that you cannot rejoin the track after going off without a flag marshal waiving you back onto the track. But it seems there are cars flying all over the place now like a swarm of bees and they just come back on track wherever they choose. Leclerc went off in the chicane at Monza, rejoined and won the race. He clearly made a big mistake and should have been penalized but nothing was done. Whereas Vettel who went off in Montreal and also rejoined without waiting for a clear track got penalized.

What’s really worrying though when you look at the upcoming rules for 2021 is that the teams all disagree. They all have their own interests at heart not surprisingly but as long as they’re allowed to be part of the rule-making, nothing will change in Formula 1. When I look at my crystal ball, I can see ten years in the future and basically nothing’s changed. We’re still complaining about no one being able to pass, the racing’s still boring and the budgets are even higher than they’ve been before. And we’ll have about three to five big rule changes on the cars, all in the interest of making the racing more interesting, all based around Aerodynamics of course. But none of them will change anything. The events will get bigger with more celebrities, concerts and other gimmicks to attract a big crowd. The actual race will become the side show to the whole GP event. They’re already talking about qualifying races and reverse-grids instead of getting to the root of the problem which is the cars. Fix the cars and everything will sort itself out.

JT – McLaren has announced that it will switch engine suppliers for 2021. Next year, the team will fulfill the last year of its contract with Renault but will once again have Mercedes power in 2021. It’s slightly surprising given that previous McLaren leadership said a customer engine deal would never enjoy the same kind of performance as the works team. What do you make of it?

SJ –  I think it makes sense, they will finally have a proven race winning engine, along with the rest of the packaging to build a race winning car. It’s now up to them to get their part back to where they used to be. The wheels are already in motion and new team principal Andreas Seidl is clearly doing a great job getting the team back on track. 

JT – Prior to the Russian round, the Singapore Grand Prix was won by Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel (his first win of 2019). At the front, Ferrari turned the tables on Mercedes with better strategy, pitting Vettel early. He undercut Mercedes’ Hamilton and Bottas and his teammate Charles Leclerc. When the others pitted he emerged in the lead - a lead he never relinquished. But the passing was done in the pits, not on-track. Prior to that Leclerc led, lapping at such a slow pace that everyone, including the back-markers, bunched up behind him.

There was some passing among the midfield contenders with Daniel Ricciardo making his way up the order early in the race but then making contact that ended his night. Others made passes as well but it was a bit hard to follow on the TV coverage. What did you think of the race?

SJ – The beginning of the race was just ridiculous. The last place car in the field had the fastest lap. How is that even possible? All the drivers were on their team radio asking, “When can I go, when can I go?!”

I think Vettel’s win may help put him back in his groove a little bit. He drove a good race and Ferrari made the right call for him. What I don’t understand is how Mercedes could get their strategy that wrong. You would have thought that they’d split the strategy between their two cars and have one mark Vettel and the other mark Leclerc. 

It’s crazy when you consider there’s 40 people sitting behind computers at each of the top team’s home base and they’re all looking at endless streams of data and they still manage to get it wrong, not just once, but quite consistently in fact. Not just Mercedes but generally speaking across all the top teams. Had they just had an engineer on pit lane and the driver evaluating the situation you would never have made the decision Mercedes made. Either the drivers would have said, “I’m coming in because Vettel’s coming in.” Or the engineer would have made to the call to pit immediately. 

You have about five seconds at best to make that decision and you just have to go from experience by the seat of the pants sometimes and make the call. That’s what Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher were so good at back in the day. A lot of that comes from doing sports car racing for a while. You get used to strategy calls like that because you can’t mess around during an endurance race where you have to pit multiple times. You’ve just got to go for it. 

If you try to look at all of the data and factor every single scenario in, it’s already too late. That was clearly the case here. Mercedes blew it because they didn’t or couldn’t react quickly enough. 

When everybody was going that slowly it was obvious to me just sitting at home watching on the TV, that whomever came in first would get a huge jump on the rest, so when Vettel pulled the trigger you would have thought at least one of the Mercs would follow asap.

Leclerc clearly wasn’t happy with the decision to pit Vettel first and I can definitely understand why as it was obviously the right choice to go after the win. It’s hard to say if that was a team-wide decision or just made on the spur of the moment by Vettel’s side of the garage. 

JT – Sadly, the lack of race craft of several drivers was on display again at Singapore. There were at least three instances of contact that seemed easily avoidable including Haas’ Romain Grosjean’s collision with Williams’ George Russell. 

SJ – Yes, it’s sometimes mind-boggling how poor the race craft is among these guys. You’re almost lost for words. You see stupid moves you don’t see in a Formula 1 race at times. And it just keeps happening over and over again. They’re blindingly quick on a lap but their race craft is non-existent, but somehow that seems to be enough to keep the team owners happy. I would have thought points, as valuable as they are for the teams, would have more emphasis than a few quick qualifying laps. Interestingly though, the new crop of drivers that has come along in the last couple of years all look extremely good, which makes me think that in 3 years or so when they have the experience and are ready to be champions assuming they’re in the right car, the racing could become really good.